Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Forti, Tova L., Animal Imagery in the Book of Proverbs (SVT, 118; Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2008). Pp. xv+193. Hardcover. US$109.00. ISBN 9789004162877.

This volume, which grows out of aspects of the author's doctoral work, is an exhaustive and intricately organized study of animal images in the Book of Proverbs. In an introductory chapter, Forti reviews the approaches of several scholars who have studied animal imagery in the Bible and the ancient Near East (Heimpel, Black, Rimbach, Watanabe, Riede, Strawn, Collins). She continues by presenting her own methodology, which she describes as a “combined methodology” that is concerned with the zoological identification of the animals mentioned in Proverbs while also tending to the literary and conceptual dimensions of their presentation in the text of Proverbs (p. 12).

The initial chapter also sketches the range of literary forms one encounters in Proverbs. In particular Forti names “Short Forms” that include familiar identifications such as the “Comparative Saying,” the “Antithetical Saying”, the “Better-Than Saying,” but also sayings that “employ direct speech” (e.g. Prov 12:13) and what Forti calls the “Metaphorical Saying” in which “two terms merge, thereby creating a single conceptual picture” (p. 18). Forti offers Prov 30: 17 as an example of this last sort of saying: “The eye that mocks a father and disdains the homage due a mother—the ravens of the brook will gouge it out, young eagles will devour it.” According to Forti, here “the synechdochal eye that represents filial scorn of parents merges with the implicit real eye of the second clause, creating a symbolic illustration of the retribution visited on wayward children (cf. Prov. xix 24 and xx 5)” (p. 18). Forti also identifies “Long Forms” in Proverbs that include “Admonition and Exhortation” speeches, “First Person Narrative,” numerical sayings, which consist of “a heading followed by a list of phenomenon drawn from various categories,” and the perhaps more familiar “Graded Numerical Sequence” (p. 21). The presentation of these various literary forms for Forti is more than just a rote introductory exercise. In the chapters that follow she analyzes particular animal images in Proverbs in relation to the literary form in which they are embedded.

In Chapter 2 Forti begins in earnest her analysis of verses in Proverbs that deploy animal imagery. This chapter is concerned primarily to explore particular animal images that appear in Proverbs' use of the literary form of the admonition. Each subsection in the chapter includes Forti's statement of the particular function of the animal images to be treated (e.g., “Animal Imagery as a Concretizing Device in the Motive Clause” or “Animal Imagery as an Expression of Ethical Values”). Forti regularly offers a translation of the passage in which the animal image appears (sometimes following a particular published translation, and at other points offering a “free” rendering). The translation is followed by an attempt to identify precisely the animal in question. In carrying out this task Forti often is dependent upon standard published work on biblical fauna, but also regularly and helpfully presents the pertinent comparative philological evidence for the reader and describes the contexts in which the Hebrew term is employed elsewhere in the Bible. These sections on “The Animal” are then followed by a discussion of “The Text.” Here Forti sketches the place and function of the animal image in the verse or larger passage. Chapter 2 concludes with an appendix on “Hunting Techniques in Biblical Poetry.”

With chapter 3 Forti proposes to analyze the “paradoxical juxtaposition of animal imagery and social categories” (p. 87). Hence the chapter begins by treating the juxtaposition of the “Bear and the Fool” in Prov 27:12 and then moves to the “Lion and the Sluggard” of 22:13 and 26:13, followed by a discussion of the “Dog and the Provoker” of 26:17. Here Forti's procedure is not as uniform as in Chapter 2. For instance, before discussing a verse as a whole she at points highlights the form of the saying under discussion, but at other points does not. If the animal in question was not discussed in Chapter 2, such a discussion is included as well; otherwise the reader is referred to earlier paragraphs.

Animals that serve as models for human society are the topic of Chapter 4. With each subsection in this chapter, Forti offers a descriptive statement of the nature of the verses to be treated (e.g. “A Didactic Model Within An Admonition” or “Animal Habits Worthy Of Emulation, In Numerical Sayings”). Again, the animal(s) that is(are) represented in the particular verse(s) is(are) discussed and its(their) place and function in the passage in Proverbs is described.

In the Conclusion to the volume Forti reiterates explicitly certain aspects of her approach. In particular she notes that rather than merely focusing “on the role of the animal in representing ideas or codes of behavior,” as with previous inquiries, her study has “taken account of the relations among three rhetorical elements: the vehicle/comparatum, tenor/comparandum, and the rhetorical pattern.” She contends that her “focus on the formal setting and literary paradigm of each animal image has revealed the dynamic hermeneutics between the animal image per se and its rhetorical uses” (p. 133). Forti's procedure, she further notes, is “focused on the various patterns into which animal images are embedded” and “emphasized the importance of sensitivity to the rhetorical significance of deviations from a common literary pattern” (p. 134).

Forti's book is written for specialists—those interested in the scholarly study of Proverbs or the study of animal imagery in the Bible and the ancient Near East. Although in the introductory chapter Forti does present a number of the methodological procedures she notes as accomplishments in the Conclusion, it was at times difficult to see exactly how these procedures were working themselves out in the body of the text itself. Indeed the book's title together with its theoretical rhetoric about metaphor and hermeneutics might initially lead some readers to believe that the book will offer a significantly innovative reading of Proverbs. This, however, is not really the case. Forti's discussions and conclusions generally fall within the mainstream of scholarly debates.

This characteristic of Forti's text, of course, is in itself hardly a shortcoming. Indeed the careful attention Forti invests in studying the zoological aspects of the animal imagery in relation to the forms of the sayings in which these images appear, as well as the rhetorical sensitivity that guided her study, pays significant dividends. As with any work, scholars will of course at points take issue with some of Forti's conclusions and regard others as already established. Yet Forti throughout shows herself to be a thorough, fair, and sensitive exegete. Her discussion of Prov 6:1–5 and Prov 30:26, for example, reflect a keen understanding of the critical issues at stake in each passage and a judicious weighing of the evidence, while her exegesis of texts like 7:1–4 and 28:1, to name just a few noteworthy instances, is careful, detailed and, most importantly, illuminating. Scholars of Proverbs, those who are most interested in refining their understanding of the ancient sapiential text, will find Forti's work most valuable.

Forti's book, however, does not end with the Conclusion. She attaches two appendices. The first treats animal imagery in Qohelet. She contends that “the vividness and allusiveness of animal images helps illustrate the inherent polarities” in the book (p. 155). For example, the proverb “even a live dog is better than a dead lion” in Qoh 9:4, Forti states, “is woven into the discussion in order to illustrate the superiority of life to death.” It thus “contradicts” another passage in Qohelet that “alleges precisely the opposite,” namely Qoh 4:2, “then I accounted those who died long since more fortunate than those who are still living” (p. 153). Although such a conclusion surely has been reached by others more economically, Forti's thorough (seven page) treatment of the issue nonetheless has value. The second appendix argues that the presence of animal imagery, so prevalent in sapiential discourses (especially Proverbs), ought to be regarded as a further criteria for identifying “wisdom Psalms.”

In sum, Forti is to be congratulated for offering advanced students of Proverbs an important and exegetically detailed tool, which because of its careful attention to a set of textual details—animal images—that are sometimes overlooked or only minimally attended to, will enhance our own exegetical work.

Timothy J. Sandoval, Chicago Theological Seminary